Union and Verizon trade PR shots as details are scarce

WASHINGTON: Few details emerged from the contract negotiations between Verizon and its two main unions last week, but that didn't mean the PR battle was any less pitched.

WASHINGTON: Few details emerged from the contract negotiations between Verizon and its two main unions last week, but that didn't mean the PR battle was any less pitched.

Both sides agreed to withhold the specifics of the talks, and therefore moderation was the order of the day.

"We've been fairly reserved in commenting," said Eric Rabe, VP of media relations

for Verizon. "We didn't want to solve a communications problem by creating a bargaining problem."

But each side often met the other's statements with skepticism, fomenting public concern that the discussions on sticking points like job-security provisions and health insurance were not going smoothly. Union spokesmen repeatedly doused optimistic company statements with doom and gloom in a public back-and-forth that capped several weeks of PR thrusts and parries.

Despite the flurry of attention the negotiations have received in the last week, Verizon began actively laying the groundwork of its communications strategy well before the media glare

had descended.

As the strike date of August 3 approached, Verizon briefed reporters, editorial boards, and labor experts the company expected reporters to turn to for analysis. The company's communications department also mounted an advertising campaign that called attention to the salaries and benefits packages offered to employees.

While communications experts gave high marks to the company's effort to preempt a public backlash, the Communications Workers of America responded by accusing Verizon of presenting only the best-case scenarios. The union, which ultimately decided to postpone its strike deadline, did not respond to PRWeek's request for an interview.

In contrast to the strike of 2000, the company did not conduct daily briefings, opting instead to update reporters as they called in.

Verizon, which consults with crisis PR firm Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates, had more than 60 people in-house working on media and employee relations. PR people, along with lawyers, were banned from the negotiations in Washington by order of a federal mediator, creating the need for a communications chain that stretched from the capital to Verizon's New York City headquarters, where Rabe and a few others dealt with the lion's share of the media interest.

Making matters more complicated, the communications team had to deal with the strike before another story of major import - MCI's alleged manipulation of call traffic - had simmered down.

"There were several days there that were as intense as any I remember, even during the [2000] strike," Rabe said.

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